On a recent night of celebrating Msgr. Tom Hartman's 65th birthday, his decades of positive living and his abundant acts of kindness, he sat face-forward on the ballroom dais in Woodbury.
His gaze was fixed straight ahead, and he barely moved until a military honor guard marched in, hoisting the American flag, halting next to Hartman's wheelchair. Then, with some effort, he slowly raised his forearm, wedged his right hand between his suit jacket and shirt and placed it over his heart. "I pledge allegiance to the flag. . . ."
From start to finish, Long Island's well-known priest, counselor, Emmy-winning TV broadcaster and author mouthed the oath. It was no small feat.
Once part of the two-man, prizewinning cable television show "God Squad" and the nationally syndicated column of the same name, he has been hard hit by Parkinson's disease. His condition makes better days and bad days unpredictable, so his attendance at the event -- a combination birthday party and fundraiser for the Thomas Hartman Foundation for Parkinson's Research -- was in question.
"Father Tom is a great example of a heroic person who has done and is doing great things," said the foundation's chief scientific adviser, Dr. David Eidelberg of The Feinstein Institute in Manhasset. The money-raising capacity of the foundation rests largely on Hartman's celebrity, whether on TV, through his books and newspaper column, his position in the Catholic Church, his community fundraising or his history of doing good.
Rabbi Marc Gellman, Hartman's partner on the TV and print versions of "God Squad," shared a story of crossing the 59th Street Bridge, Manhattan-bound: "Out of nowhere, he asks me to stop the car. I said 'What? This isn't a parking lot.' But for reasons I still don't understand, I did stop." Hartman darted out of the vehicle and grabbed a jagged chunk of metal. "He jumps back inside the car, drenching wet from the rain. . . . He looks at me and says, 'Do you have a towel?' "
That was typical Tom, Gellman said, practicing the virtues he's preached.
"Everybody associated with the foundation -- our donors, everyone -- will say 'Father Tom married us, he christened our children, he baptized this one, he was there,' " said Kathy Scarpinella, a longtime friend tapped by Hartman to run the foundation. "He's really touched people's lives."
At its worst, Parkinson's impairs the ability to walk, balance, swallow, talk, move facial muscles. It results in cognitive decline, depression and vast changes in behavior. Hartman made his diagnosis public in 2004, as he was whittling his work schedule. When maneuvering his own vehicle got tough, benefactors hired drivers to ferry him to and from his home until even that was too taxing. By 2007, he signed off on the God Squad column, telling readers he could no longer continue because of the disease.
As the foundation's spiritual adviser, Hartman insisted that there be no belabored fuss over his condition. "Father Tom would always say: 'God gives you what you can handle.' That it's not his place to question, it's his place to serve," Scarpinella said.
Hartman grew up in East Williston, part of a brood of six reared by devout Catholic parents who believed love, charity and service were inextricably linked, a mandate for all. Although he loved sports and was quite the athlete -- the family's annual Thanksgiving Day touch-football game was a high point on his calendar -- becoming a pastor won out.
"His desire was to either be a priest or a famous baseball player. The religious part became the stronger part, it grabbed him more," his 87-year-old mother, Sheila Hartman, said. "And talking was always his forte. That's why he became a TV person, a radio person, a communicator from the altar."
Though Parkinson's sometimes makes it hard for Hartman to speak in more than mumbled half-sentences and though he is, at times, confused, he has an awareness of most people and things, his sister, Sheila Mohrman, said.
When she steers him through hallways of the Uniondale nursing home where he now lives, residents call out to him, she said. "Hi, Father Tom," they say. "How are you, Father Tom?" They wave, pat his back, reach for his hand. Ever the crowd-pleaser, he flashes them that showstopping smile. "He's still so handsome," Mohrman said.
Hartman was the director of radio and television for the Diocese of Rockville Centre. He launched Telecare productions, won four Emmy Awards and was a regular on ABC-TV's "Good Morning America." His former national radio show, distributed by the ABC Radio Network, was dubbed "Journeys Through Rock."
An upcoming documentary will spotlight Hartman and the disease that both disrupted his life and gave it an added purpose. "Father Tom is the thread that holds it together," said filmmaker Roy Hammond, a former vice president at WLIW-TV who worked with Hartman. "Parkinson's is an important subject, and he's a very great fellow."
"He never said 'no' to anybody," said Michael Pascucci, a Telecare board member and president of WLNY-TV. "If you were getting married on the Great Wall of China and wanted Tom to officiate, he did it."
Pascucci also praised Hartman's people skills. "Father Tom attracted and retained good employees, good board members, good friends. He had 148 people on his golf [fundraising] committee, and he sold 200 raffle tickets at $500 apiece. Tom was a master at getting people to help."
Hartman persuaded others with his charisma, intelligence and genuine interest in their lives, said the Rev. Dr. Robert Lord, a retired Milford, Conn., priest who considers Hartman his best friend. "Tom has this personality that is always giving, giving, giving," Lord said.
When tragedy befalls such a person, it can be hard to make sense of it, Lord said. "Tom must certainly have asked why he was blessed with so many talents, and why this sickness happened to him. But we can never know what our life is going to be. There's the good and the bad. Life is a mystery to be lived."
Hartman was open to those mysteries, the questions that have no easy answers. He believes that even a seemingly accidental situation is rife with meaning and instruction, Gellman said.
During their first meeting in 1987 -- which wound down with a two-hour conversation in a parking lot -- Gellman told Hartman about a job offer from a large synagogue in Florida, and that he was heading home to telephone his acceptance. "Tom said, 'You're not going to Florida. . . . I had a dream last night and God said, in the dream, to 'tell the guy you're with that I'm not through with him there, where he is.'"
Gellman turned down the job. The next day, he and Hartman launched "God Squad."
"People say there are no miracles in the world, that they don't see any evidence of them," Gellman said, reflecting. "Tom has been a miracle, not just in my life, but in the lives of many."